Remembering Brave Indian Queens: 10 Powerhouses History has Forgotten
Just like Gaea, the embodiment of Mother Earth in Greek mythology, India also has a concept of Adi Parashakti, the supreme mother who is behind the creation of the entire universe, the cosmos, and the complete cycle of physical life. This weltanschauung of a primordial mother goddess is present in every Indian’s life and resonates with the belief that this feminine super power will look after all her children just like a mortal mother, whose love for her children is considered to be the greatest in this world.
A Paradox for Women in India
This belief emanates in the cultural and religious life of most Indians, where female deities like goddesses Durga and Kali, the embodiment of Shakti – the power, goddess Saraswati, the embodiment of Wisdom and Education, goddess Lakshmi, the embodiment of Wealth and Prosperity, and various other deities are worshipped with much fervor and dedication.
However, despite all the religious connotations connected with feminine power, Indian history has only considered and idolized women who have been generally hailed for their tremendously beautiful physical attributes in their lifetimes and those who have charmed the menfolk beyond comprehension. Though it is not a crime to be admired for beauty, this kind of subjectivity has probably emanated from an ancient sense of patriarchal superiority, which has remained a bane in society.
This is a serious paradox in India, where on one hand, multiple feminine powers are celebrated and revered, but at the same time, brave daughters are quickly forgotten to the dark pages of history. Maybe in the popular modern media the brave deeds of women like Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Jhalkari Bai of Jhansi, Razia Sultana of the Delhi Sultanate , and others are much celebrated, but the quantum of these mentions are not good enough.
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Hence, in this article, we will discuss 10 of the fiercest Indian queens who have been almost completely forgotten but who deserve mention. Mind you, this is just a random list out of hundreds of such characters who have been epitomes of courage, fortitude, intelligence, and chivalry.
Queen Didda of Kashmir
One of the fiercest characters of Indian history, Queen Didda was a royal who was one of a kind. Her story seems something right out of a thriller novel. She was born to King Simharaja of Lohara, a kingdom situated close to the Pir Panjal range of the inner Himalayas towards the North-West frontier. Popular legends say her father wanted to kill her because she was physically disabled. However, she survived and grew up to be a powerful character.
She married King Kshemagupta of Kashmir and thus united both the Kashmir and the Lohara kingdoms. When her husband died, she ruled the kingdom as Queen Regent, placing her son, a mere child, on the throne from c. 958 AD. Later, her son died and she killed her grandsons to take the power all in her name.
Joint issue coin of Kshema Gupta and Queen Didda. ( Live History India )
So, effectively Didda started ruling solely from c. 979/980 AD and remained in power until 1003 AD. She ruled with an iron fist and quelled any dissension or rebellion. The experts would say that she was ruthless, but we have to consider the fact that she lived in a world that was primarily a patriarchy.
In such a scenario, a woman had to take some very bold steps to hold her realm together. Yet Didda was also an administrative genius, who propagated beneficial measures for her subjects and her kingdom was one of peace and prosperity. She is considered the greatest queen of Kashmir by many experts.
Rani Velu Nachiyar
How many times have we read about men folk timidly surrendering to the erstwhile colonial powers of the British juggernauts? How many times have we learnt about history being replete with Indian kings laying down arms in ignominy before the British? Though many of them fought very bravely, luck was not always on their side.
But the story of an Indian queen has just the opposite tale of victory and glory. Queen Velu Nachiyar has unfortunately remained an obscure figure in history in India but her bravery can be an example for any woman to fight the injustices prevailing in our modern society. Rani Velu Nachiyar was born in 1730 AD to Raja Chellamuthu Vijayaragunatha Sethupathy and Rani Sakandhimuthal of the Ramnad Kingdom of the present-day Tamil Nadu state.
She has the distinction of being the first Indian queen to have fought the British power and for such fortitude, she has been hailed with the name of ‘Veeramangai’ (roughly translated to ‘Brave Woman’) by her people. In her childhood, she was brought up with different kinds of military and administrative training as she was the only child and hence her father’s heir. She married Muthuvadugananthur Udaiyathevar, the King of Sivagangai, at the tender age of 16 and they had a daughter from this marriage.
In due course, Sivagangai was attacked by the British, who were helped by the Nawab of Arcot. The king was killed but Rani Velu Nachiyar could escape with her daughter unscathed. In 1780 AD, after amassing an army, and also with the help of Hyder Ali of Mysore and Gopala Nayakar, Rani Velu Nachiyar defeated the British and regained her Sivagangai estate.
Postage stamp depicting Indian warrior queen Velu Nachchiyar. ( GODL)
In the battle, she also employed a lady by the name of ‘Kuyili’ to act as a human bomb and blow up a British ammunition store, thus becoming one of the first human bombs in history. Rani Velu Nachiyar ruled her kingdom for the next 10 years, before her daughter succeeded her on the throne in 1790 AD.
Chand Bibi of the Deccan
One of the most powerful emperors in Indian history was Akbar, and with his Mughal forces behind him, not many dared to affront his authority. But a ‘mere woman’ by the name of Chand Bibi repulsed his forces in the year 1595 AD. Chand Bibi was born to the Sultan of Ahmednagar and was married to the Sultan of Bijapur.
In subsequent years, she became the regent of both Ahmednagar and Bijapur, thereby becoming a de facto ruler of both the Sultanates. Mughal Emperor Akbar wanted all the Deccan Sultanates to acknowledge his supremacy but when his son Murad invaded Ahmednagar in 1595 Chand Bibi repulsed the attack and defended her fort successfully. However, when the Mughals returned with a larger force in 1599 AD, due to various factors, Chand Bibi wanted to negotiate with them, a correct move at that time born out of diplomacy.
Chand Bibi defends Ahmadnagar in 1595. ( Public Domain )
This action was misunderstood by some of her troops, who thought that she was betraying them. They rushed to her quarters and murdered her. But Chand Bibi’s bravery was even recognized by the powerful Mughals and though history has largely forgotten her, her courage is remembered in her native land even today.
Queen Abbakka Chowta of Karnataka
Rani Abbakka repulsed, again and again, one of the most powerful and ferocious naval powers of the world during her time – the Portuguese. Despite such tremendous efforts, unfortunately she is not very well known or celebrated today outside the state of Karnataka. Rani Abbakka belonged to the Chowta dynasty and the Tuluva community.
She was crowned in c. 1525 AD by her uncle, and their capital was at Ullal, a prosperous port and a developed town. At that time, the Portuguese dominated the Western Coast of India and the spice trade route of the East. They had supreme naval power and easily put down any rebellion from Indian rulers.
Rani Abbakka Chowta fighting the Portuguese. ( YouTube Screenshot)
Ullal, being a rich port, naturally came under the radar of the Portuguese and greed set in as they tried to annex it. The Rani repulsed their attacks. She defeated them comprehensively twice in 1555 and 1568 AD. She was a Jain queen, who had a very capable and cosmopolitan army with Hindus, Muslims, and warriors from various castes .
However, she was betrayed by her husband, and after she was imprisoned by the Portuguese she died in jail fighting them. This valiant queen was a very just ruler and admired by her subjects too.
Rani Durgavati of Gond
From the South of India, we come to Central India to find another brave Indian queen by the name of Rani Durgavati. Durgavati was born to the Chandela Rajput Clan. Her father was Keerat Rai and she was born at the Fort of Kalinjar, which falls in present-day Uttar Pradesh state.
She was married to Prince Dalpat Shah of the Gondwana kingdom and they had a son from this marriage. But Dalpat Shah died when his son was only five years old. So Rani Durgavati took the responsibility of ruling the kingdom herself and she strategically moved her capital to the Satpura Hill ranges, which falls presently in the Madhya Pradesh state of India, to have better defenses.
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First unambiguous painting on Maharani Durgavati, shown gearing-up for the Battle of Narrai. ( Public Domain )
After a few years, Rani Durgavati was attacked by the ruler of Malwa called Baz Bahadur, who is mainly known for his famous affair with Roopmati. However, this attack was repulsed by the Rani. After this, in c. 1562, Malwa was captured by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, whose generals later attacked Durgavati because her kingdom touches their domain and Akbar wanted total control of the sub-continent.
The Rani was not frightened by the mighty Mughal army and she moved to a more secure position, from where she and her son carried on fighting. Though they repulsed the Mughal army several times, her son got injured and was carried off the battlefield. Rani Durgavati was badly injured too, and looking at imminent defeat, she killed herself - thereby holding on to her belief that it was better to die than capitulate to the enemy.
Queen Avanti bai of Ramgarh
This list would be incomplete if we didn’t speak of another brave queen of Central India – Rani Avanti bai. She was married to the Rajah of Ramgarh, which currently falls in the Madhya Pradesh state of India. Around the beginning of the 1850’s, the Rajah fell ill and since his son, the heir to the throne probably by the name of Amar or Aman Singh was still a minor, the Rani took the reins of the kingdom in her own hands.
This, of course, did not please the British authorities, who were offended by the rise of any local eligible ruler. They incorporated an administrator to look after this kingdom, ignoring the authority of the Rani. The queen in turn gave a cold shoulder to this British administrator and rose in battle against the British.
In the meantime, in 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny broke out and the region of Central India also became tense. To fight the British, Rani Avanti bai was said to have sent messengers to her surrounding kingdoms to unite them against a common enemy. In her message, she even enclosed her bangles and told them to either join her in battle or to sit at home wearing those bangles.
Postage stamp depicting Rani Avanti bai leading her army. ( GODL)
When the British attacked her in 1857, she repulsed the attack by commanding her army. She was an expert in various kinds of martial arts. The British got the shock of their lives and soon they returned with an invincible force.
The Rani had to retreat to the forested hilly areas of Devharigarh, from where she launched a guerrilla attack. The British pressed on, and in March 1858, when defeat seemed imminent, the Rani took her own life with her sword. Thus ended the saga of another brave Indian queen.
Rani Tarabai of the Marathas
When we talk about the Great Marathas and their valiant struggle, we often don’t remember to discuss the Maratha Queen Tarabai. Rani Tarabai was the daughter-in-law of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, she was the wife of Rajaram Bhosale I and the daughter of the Maratha Commander Hambirrao Mohite.
When her husband died in the year 1700 AD, it was she who held the Maratha Empire together in their struggle against the mighty Mughal army of Aurangzeb. Though she got embroiled in succession crises later on and got into a fight with the Peshwa, it was her bravery in the early years of her regency that made the Marathas regain many of their lost territories and advance into new areas.
Maharani Tarabai of Karvir. ( Public Domain )
She was a master tactician in battle and a very able administrator when she was a regent. Later on in her life, she came into a peaceful settlement with the Peshwa and died at the ripe old age of 86. Tarabai was one of the reasons that the Marathas continued their influence even after the Shivaji Maharaj.
Indian Queen Belawadi Mallamma of Karnataka
The next brave Indian queen in our list is Belawadi Mallamma from a district of North Karnataka. She was a fearless queen who fought against the Maratha forces of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj to defend her territory. She is also sometimes credited with forming the first fully female army unit in India.
Painting of the Indian Queen Belawadi Mallamma by Shri. Erayya S Poojar in 2009. ( Journeys of Karnataka )
Kittur Rani Chennamma
Kittur Rani Chennamma belonged to a place called ‘Kittur’, a princely state which falls in present-day Karnataka. She was married at an early age to the Rajah of Kittur. Eventually her husband died and unfortunately her son died during her lifetime too.
The British wanted to annex her kingdom through their infamous Doctrine of Lapse. But Rani Chennamma defied them and when the British attacked her in 1824 she defeated them and the British collector was killed in that war. But the second time when the British attacked her again, despite giving them a fierce resistance and fighting valiantly, Rani Chennamma was captured and imprisoned at Bailhongal Fort. There she passed away in the year 1829. Yet she left a legacy of bravery and a spirit of fighting for your beliefs, even in the face of heavy odds.
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Statue of Kittur Rani Chennamma. (Naveen Roy/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
Last, but Not Least: The Indian Queen Keladi Chennamma
The last person, but not the least, to be discussed in this list is another courageous Indian queen from a princely state which again falls now in the modern state of Karnataka. This is Queen Keladi Chennamma from the kingdom of Keladi . She was married to King Somasekhara Nayaka in the year 1667 AD, but her husband died in 1677 AD.
At that time, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was essentially invincible in the Indian sub-continent. Aurangzeb’s realm was vast and so was his army. He was ruthless too. But the brave queen Keladi Chennamma repulsed his army when he attacked her for sheltering one of the sons of Maratha Great Shivaji Maharaj. In totality, Keladi Chennamma ruled her kingdom for around 25 years and she was known as a valiant and just ruler.
Queen Keladi Chennamma. ( Keladi Chennamma )
They May be Gone, But these Brave Indian Queens Shouldn’t Be Forgotten
Thus we remember some of the brave Indian queens, who are not discussed much nowadays outside the periphery of their original homelands. In India, if women get more opportunities, this country could again become the fabled land of gold and prosperity - as it was known in the distant past.
Saurav Ranjan Datta has just released his first book of 12 extraordinary stories of women from India, “ Maidens of Fate ’, available now from Amazon.
Top Image: The sorties of many brave Indian queens have been lost to history. Source: jozefklopacka/Adobe Stock